The Tree of Life
Film review by: Witney Seibold
The texture of the floor you crawled on as an infant. The smell of smoke on July 4th. The filter of light through your window. The warm baths. The playful roughhousing. Swimming. The night air. The weird neighbor. The uncle who leans in a little too close. The kid who got injured. The time you witnessed a horrible accident. The time you overheard an argument. Caught a glimpse of the adult world. The afternoon buzz. The bigness of your parents. The resentment. The moment of standing up. The moment of doubt. The largeness of life. The bitterness. The clutching on. The letting go. The largeness of your life. The smallness of your life. The largeness of life.
Terrence Malick‘s “The Tree of Life” is intimately familiar with my life, somehow. It knows the way I thought as a child. It knows how my memory compressed and expanded as I aged. It knows the specific tactile experiences I had. It recreates those experience in a series of gorgeous and evocative shots that reach calmly into parts of my brain that I thought had remained inactive. It will do the same for you. It encompasses the childhood experience so accurately and so abstractly, you get the feeling that, while Malick is doing something mildly autobiographical, he is also capturing something undeniably universal.
“The Tree of Life” uses these childhood memories as a jumping-off point to connect your life and my life and all all our lives, however infinitesimally small, to the vastness of the cosmos. The film is bookended by extended abstract sequences where we see the creation of the universe, the formation of the Earth, the first stirrings of life, and the benevolently animal, but strangely human interactions of ancient creatures. These sequences are things of beauty and meditation, and play less like a dry essay on the rigid biological construction of living things, and more like a gently whispered poem about the power of Life.
This is one of the most ambitious films I think I have ever seen. It can be compared to “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its scope, its calm, and its need to depict the vastness of the cosmos, and how that vastness can sometime feel a vital part of our tiny lives on this little rock.
The bulk of the film follows a young boy named Jack (Hunter McCracken) who is growing up in 1950s suburban Waco. His mother (Jessica Chastain) is a calm an benevolent, almost angelic presence in his life. She hugs him close, danced in the yard. Smiles at him. She points to the sky, and whispers to her son “That’s where God lives.” She encourages love. Love is the only way to be alive. His father (Brad Pitt) is a square-jawed, wide-shouldered taskmaster, who belittles and berates his kids. He needs things just so, and insists they listen and listen good when he gives them important lessons about succeeding in the world. Discipline and order are the only way I can live. And you’d better be like me, and how painful is it when you realize that you are like me?This is all remembered by an older Jack (Sean Penn), who seems to be suffering from the death of his younger brother years before, and now seems to be disillusioned by his father, and, by extension The Father.
Memories. Parents. God. Memories. The details are all there. I was not raised in the 1950s, I was raised in the 1980s. But I feel like this is my story as well. Like Malick found it.
In addition to the vastness of the cosmos, there are constant messages of God’s mysterious word, the function of Grace, and, as one comes to resent discipline and grief and pain, the frustrating silence of God. The film ends with a quiet reunion, perhaps an afterlife retreat, of Jack and his family. Life began, it leads up to and away from you, and it rolls on forever, lost in a vastness of time too large to contemplate. You are, at once, small and large.
In theological terms, “The Tree of Life” could be interpreted as intimately religious. In showing the creation of the universe, in the behavior of animals, in the evolution of life leading up to us, he seems to be tracing something God-like in his ambitions. Dad is a wrathful Old Testament. Mom is a forgiving New Testament. And you are in the middle, coming to peace with your dad, with your heritage, with your position as a created being. Even if you are uncomfortable with religious language, you are still a created being.
“The Tree of Life,” just like “2001,” may anger and frustrate many of its viewers. They may see it as complex and ponderous, and given that deadly appellation so often misapplied to anything with a slightly slowed pace: “pretentious.” But the film is doing something much more than telling a story and exploring familiar ground, or even indulging in halcyon nostalgia. It is looking at the universe, and writing gently and familiarly, a prayer to it.
It’s one of the biggest films I have seen in a good while.